Four states were in court on Friday mounting challenges to President Donald Trump’s week-old order stopping citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, with the challengers contending the move was unconstitutional.
The states’ arguments focused on the ban’s alleged targeting of people based on religion, which would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the government from favoring one religion over another.
The White House has contended the moves were necessary for national security, and Justice Department lawyers in Boston on Friday said religion had not been a factor in the selection of the seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Less than 60,000 visas previously issued to citizens of those seven countries have been invalidated for now as a result of the order, the U.S. State Department said on Friday in response to media reports that government lawyers were citing a figure of 100,000.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuits included both foreign nationals who had been detained while re-entering the United States last weekend and others who had visas but were now afraid to leave the country because they might not be readmitted.
The new Republican president’s order signed on Jan. 27 triggered chaos at U.S. airports last weekend. Some travelers abroad were turned back from flights into the United States, crowds of hundreds of people packed into arrival areas to protest and legal objections were filed across the country.
“The legal issues in this case are complex, but in many ways this case gets to the heart of who we are as Americans,” Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring of Virginia said after a hearing on his state’s challenge. “We do not discriminate based on religion, race, or national origin. That is why we will continue to fight.”
The order also temporarily stopped the entry of all refugees into the country and indefinitely halted the settlement of Syrian refugees.
Federal judges in Boston and Seattle also were weighing arguments.
SKEPTICISM IN BOSTON
In Boston, a federal judge expressed skepticism about a civil rights group’s claim that Trump’s order represented religious discrimination.
Civil-rights advocates in the Massachusetts capital called on U.S. District Judge Nathan Gorton to extend a restraining order issued early on Sunday that for seven days blocks the detention or removal of approved refugees, visa holders, and legal permanent U.S. residents who entered from the seven countries.
“Where does it say Muslim countries?” Gorton asked Matthew Segal, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representing the plaintiffs in the Boston case.
Segal responded, “If your honor’s question is, ‘Does the word ‘Muslim’ make a profound presence in this executive order?,’ my answer is that it doesn’t. But the president described what he was going to do as a Muslim ban and then he proceeded to carry it out.”
Gorton shot back, “Am I to take the words of an executive at any point before or after election as a part of that executive order?”
The state of Massachusetts, the anti-poverty group Oxfam and seven Iranian nationals have joined the lawsuit.
The initial ban on permanent residents, or green card holders, was one of the most confusing elements in the executive order signed on Jan. 27. But following an outcry and legal challenges, the Department of Homeland Security said on Sunday that green card holders would be allowed on planes to the United States and would be assessed upon arrival.
Gorton asked U.S. Justice Department lawyer Joshua Press how the seven countries had been selected.
Press responded that the list had come from a law passed in 2015 and amended early last year requiring that citizens of the seven countries apply for visas to enter the United States, “out of concern about the refugees that were coming, mainly from Syria at that time and terrorist events that were occurring in Europe.”
Trump has told a Christian broadcaster that Syrian Christians would be given priority in applying for refugee status in the United States.
In Seattle, the states of Washington and Minnesota were together asking a judge to suspend the entire policy nationwide, which would represent the broadest ruling to date against Trump’s directive.
Should the Seattle judge rule that Washington state and Minnesota have legal standing to sue, it could help Democratic attorneys general take on Trump in court on issues beyond immigration.
During his campaign, Trump proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country to protect against terrorist threats. On Thursday, he defended the restrictions as necessary to protect religious liberty.
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jonathan Oatis)